RSS

Category Archives: Special Effects

Prosthetics and Make-up – from a lecture by Neville Smallwood in 1948, which includes a piece by Ernest Taylor

NEVILLE SMALLWOOD (1922-2004)

It has long been my contention that, when attempting a heavy character make-up, more use should be made of the materials which have been developed in the last few years – materials which are suitable for the manufacturer of false foreheads, cheeks, noses, chins and so on.  Until recently, there were no make-up laboratories in this country but, owing to chiefly to the foresight and planning of Guy Pearce, now retired (films include Clive of India, The Outsider and Hamburger Hill) and the understanding generosity of MGM, a very well stocked and equally well equipped laboratory was built in their Borehamwood Studio (aka Elstree Studios) 

 

Smallwood 1 and 2

Neville Smallwood before and after character make-up.

In order to show the value of this type of work, take the example of a comparatively young woman who, as a story unfolds, has to appear as a very much older woman.  Suppose we contrive to make this woman look old with the use of make-up only.

First of all the make-up artist needs to know the main source of light to be directed on the artiste, otherwise they cannot know whether the highlights should be above or below the shadows. This is a point all too often overlooked and I would here stress the importance of co-operation between make-up artist and cameraman, sometimes sadly lacking.

Assume then, a normal shot with main light coming from above the artiste. The make-up artist does his job accordingly and everything looks fine with the lights helping to give the required effect. Then the Director suddenly decides the next shot – to be done immediately – shall be in a dark room in front of a fire. Into the fireplace goes an enormous lamp shining up into the face of our poor artiste – lighting up the carefully placed shadows and leaving the highlights invisible. The result is that our comparatively young woman looks as she did before she was made-up!

Unaltered profile

Another snag is the ‘profile problem’ which is very difficult to overcome. Our artiste looks at herself in the mirror when she is made-up and sees herself as a much older woman, with a satisfied make-up man peering happily over her shoulder – but what has happened to her profile?  Nothing!  The heavily ridged forehead is not really ridged, the bags under the eyes are not bags, the double-chin is an illusion and, unless an artiste is given absolute preference and every consideration before the camera, sooner or later a fairly close shot of her profile will creep into the picture and the result will be unsatisfactory, even if only to the make-up artist.

I am not suggesting that all and every character make-up should be a seething mass of false features forced onto the poor artiste’s face; rather I am trying to put forward good and sound reasons why every studio should be equipped with a make-up laboratory and have capable technicians who are alive to the possibilities of prosthetics when applying a character make-up, when it is required to show a definite and unmistakeable change in a person’s face, whether for historical accuracy or for ageing – or for any other reason.

 

The Development of Materials

Various types of putty, wax cotton, wool pads and so on, have been used for years with varying degrees of success.  Latex or plastic preparations have been painted on to a face to cause wrinkles through shrinkage when drying – but to my mind, none of these things comes up to the standard required at the present time.

It was found that any non-porous material was useless. Take, for example, a false nose; nothing will stop a hot nose in the heat of intense light from perspiring – and no matter what is used as an adhesive, the perspiration will find its way between the skin and the nose and either form a bubble or blister – or give the artiste the appearance of having a permanently running nose, which is not really desirable! The stand-by man in this case has to wipe the artiste’s nose before each shot and probably has to stick it back on his face, which also damages the fine edges where it blends into the face.

The material had to be made with a skin of its own, also porous, which could be varied to suit the texture of skin to which it had to be applied and it had to be of very light weight, able to give and stretch with the movement of the face and recover its normal shape rapidly. The next problem was to find a material with all these properties which would ‘take’ make-up in the same way as the human skin, without showing differences of tone and colour where skin and false pieces met. In addition, the material had to be such that it could be made in shapes, having really extraordinarily fine thin edges tapering away practically to nothing.

A specially prepared to porous sponge rubber has been used with success, though this needs a special greasepaint, as normal make-up changes colour when applied to rubber. More useful and having similar properties, is a porous sponge plastic, which has advantages over rubber in that it is not affected by any greasepaint and does not perish or deteriorate. The only advantage that rubber has at present is that it cures at a lower temperature than the plastic and consequently, a mould will last longer when used for rubber than it will when used for plastic – a point worth bearing in mind when contemplating a long picture where an artiste may have to be made up many times, as all these things can be used only once each for screen work – although for the stage they may be used many times.

The search for a really good material from which a mould can be made easily and quickly – and which will stand repeated and prolonged periods at high temperatures and pressures – continues and is one of our main problems.

 

Neville Smallwood’s Credits: Hamburger Hill, The Bounty, Yellowbeard, The Sea Wolves, Lion of the Desert, The Dogs of War, The Lady Vanishes, The Wild Geese, Orca, Aces High, The Likely Lads, Jesus Christ Superstar, Siddhartha, Nicholas and Alexandra, Zeppelin, Unman Wittering and Zigo, Cromwell, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Casino Royale, Modesty Blaise, The Heroes of Telemark, Genghis Khan, The Long Ships, The World of Suzie Wong, The Vikings, Private’s Progress, Charley Moon, It’s a Wonderful World, They Who Dare, A Christmas Carol, The New Avengers, ITV Saturday Night Theatre, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

 

MAKE-UP IN RELATION TO PHOTOGRAPHIC EMULSION – ERNEST TAYLOR (1913-1987)

Make-up is essential to photography in motion pictures because it corrects the irregularities in pigment and texture that discolour the face and prevent it recording faithfully. In still portraiture, retouching can remedy faults but this procedure is not possible with motion film.

The face is made up of a network of tiny blood vessels and pigments which give colouring to the skin. These natural pigments and blood channels are unevenly arrayed all over the face, causing a change of colour and skin texture around the eyes, nose, cheeks and chin.

Photographed without make-up, the face records a mottled effect on the film emulsion. A balance and graded monotone of colours is produced with the use of make-up which cures over-absorption of light and allows the emulsion to reproduce the subject accurately. Its subtle use can also give character to the face.

 

Smallwood 3a Used

The changing faces of Alec Guinness in the 1949 Ealing Studios film ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’

Lighting and Emulsion Characteristics

The camera, lighting and emulsions are far more involved in use than is make-up. For the best photographic results between all factors, the lighting key should be studied carefully. Strong and hard light tends to burn the makeup off the skin, causing it to record chalkily, whilst subdued low key light tends to cause the make-up to record much darker in tone that would be expected.

First-class straight make-up photographs perfectly. With character and corrective make-up patience, practice and experience are required – both on the part of the make-up artist and the photographer. To master the technique a creative imagination, thorough understanding of light and shade and facial contours, all in relationship to photographic reproduction is necessary.

In this way make-up artists, in co-operation with the lighting men, have learned to create beauty and character with almost any subject. Foundation creams, false eyelashes, rouges, eye shading, lip colours and liners, combine to permit the stars to be photographed at their impeccable best!

After experiments with leading technicians on lighting and emulsions, Max Factor evolved panchromatic make-up for use with panchromatic emulsions. It must be applied with painstaking care and thick, crude lines have to be avoided in use with the soft high-lights and low-lights.

 

Smallwood 4a

‘Scott of the Antarctic’ showing extensive lighting used in Ealing Studios in 1949 – highlighting the need for cooperation between lighting crew and make-up artists.

Straight Make-up

Apart from providing the necessary protective colouration suitable for the various emulsions, make-up is used to give character to the face. Corrections can be made in the shape of the face and various features by careful shading and correctly placed lighting. Results have to be of a flattering nature and any subject that photographs well normally can photograph beautifully with make-up. Lifelike and natural transparency is further achieved by washing the whole of the make-up with a damp wad to eliminate a matt finish which would photograph flat.

 

Characterisation

The mere addition of beauty aids does not ensure glamour! For example, artificial eyelashes, unless tailored for the individual eye, seldom record naturally. In handling highlights and shadows, both for make-up and lighting, the intricacies of illusory relief have to be understood. The best results can only be achieved by co-operation between the lighting man and the make-up artist.

 

Colour Photography

All the spectrum of colours cannot be faithfully reproduced on colour film, which is either under or over sensitive to certain colours. The human complexion has a greater proportion of red than any other pigment tints and not only has make-up to be considered but also the surrounding colour scheme, as blues and reds are particularly absorbed and reflected. Colour make-up is at present very much a matter of blending shades to compensate for the peculiarities of the natural skin pigmentation. The aim is naturalness plus the texture to resist fading under the intense arc lighting. Make-up varies with the several colour processes which have different sensitivities to certain colours and co-operation between lighting and make-up departments is again essential. Screen make-up, as an art, is still a matter of trial and error.

 

Ernest Taylor’s Credits: Moon Zero Two, His Excellency, I Believe in You, Crash of Silence, Secret People, The Man in the White Suit, Pool of London, The Lavender Hill Mob, Cage of Gold, The Magnet, The Blue Lamp, Kind Hearts and Coronets, A Run for Your Money, Whisky Galore, Passport to Pimico, Against the Wind, Saraband, Scott of the Antarctic, It Always Rains on Sunday, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

DYNAMATION … from a lecture by Ray Harryhausen in 1984

Dynamation is a term which was coined by producer Charles Schneer when we started making black and white films together in the 1950s. We specialised in combining live actors with animated models and, since nobody knew quite what stop motion photography was, they would call it an animated film. We were trying to establish a new division between cartoon and three-dimensional animation, so we came up with the word ‘Dynamation’ for that process. As the years went by, the publicity department felt that they had to enhance the word, so we got ‘Super Dynamation’!

Georges Meliés experimented with stop motion photography in France before 1900 with his unique short film Trip to the Moon but it was Wilis O’Brien in America who first found a commercial use for stop motion. His greatest triumph was King Kong which set me off and I have never been the same since!

It left such an impression on me that I felt it was the type of career I wanted, so I made it my business to find out how it was done – hence Dynamation sprang out of the basic O’Brien technique.

The principle behind the technique is that we project a small picture of the live action. Unlike many companies who build 50ft models, we build small models and shrink the actors down to size in order to have control. The larger you go with complicated hydraulically controlled mechanisms, the less control you have – particularly in dramatic situations – so we use a small rear-projected image of the live action behind the animated model, sometimes adding matting process.

When we were presented with the story of Gulliver’s Travels’ we wanted to make it as inexpensively as possible. We had heard of the yellow backing travelling matte process used in England at that time (1959) making its own matte instantaneously using a bi-pack camera. We thought that would simplify combining big people with little people. Since we had planned 150 travelling matte shots, we came to the UK to investigate and we have been here ever since. We used the yellow backing system on three pictures, then it suddenly went out of fashion. That was the darkest day I can remember. Now, of course, we use the blue backing system.

We had just perfected the miniature projection duping process for Twenty Million Miles to Earth where you could hardly distinguish between the original negative and the Dynamation shots – and I would have liked to do the next picture that way – but Charles Spooner said you could not shoot an ‘Arabian Nights’ type picture in black and white, so we made The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad in colour. This took some experimenting as we did not have a choice of colour film which we could use for back projection plates. However, we took the plunge and it worked out quite well commercially. Not too many people found it objectionable to see rather grainy Dynamation shots intercut with the original negative. People who are technically minded are far more aware of that than the average cinema audience, although audiences today are very astute and certainly do not accept things that they would have done twenty years ago.

One of the biggest problems with colour film is contrast and change of colour and we found that the new low contrast print film, designed mainly for television, was very useful. It is much easier to control the colour balance today than it was back in 1958, when you could not leave an unfinished shot in the camera overnight. If you did, it was quite evident the next day to see a colour change jump due to the California temperature drop during the night.

Many times I set my own challenges and I find that my goal is always a little too high for the assets we have. I think that one of my greatest challenges was in Jason and the Argonauts where three men fight seven skeletons. That sequence presented a lot of problems and there were times when I averaged about thirteen frames per nine-hour day – which is less than one foot of film. The accountants got very uptight because they expected me to grind out the footage very much faster than that!

Some of the animated figures used in Jason and the Argonauts

It was necessary for me to handle all the skeletons myself as they had to be synchronised very intimately with the three miniature-projected swordsmen. The skeleton’s feet had to be fastened to the floor and, the minute they left the ground, I had to suspend them on wires for accurate control over the animation. Being keen to make the skeletons look professional, I studied fencing myself but unfortunately, I threw my hip out of joint and had to give it up!

The whole fencing sequence had to be choreographed like a ballet and broken down into numbers. We had to pre-plan the cuts ahead of time through the storyboard – and I cannot stress enough how important that it. When you get on the set you do no want to have a lot of arguments and discussions on how shots should be set up. I always make a number of pre-production drawings which aid everyone concerned in visualising just what the final effect will look like on the screen.

The famous Skeleton Fight from Jason and the Argonauts

I always prefer to animate models of animals for exotic settings and situations instead of using real animals. It is so difficult to find a talented crab who will perform just the way you want, or a baboon who can play chess! You do not want to be at the whim and mercy of a lizard, hoping he will go from point A to point B in so many seconds. I find that real lizards become lethargic under the hot studio lights and barely blink or yawn for the benefit of the camera. The animated ones will perform exactly as directed.

For the bulk of the shots in our films I prefer to use miniature rear projection instead of travelling mattes because it’s easier to execute intimate interplay between actor and model. You have the projected image right there in front of you, rather than wait for weeks to see the combined effect from an optical printer. However, we do resort to many travelling matte shots which, in themselves, are very time consuming to put together.

Dynamation is a word which really means using every trick in the trade – but there comes a point in the economics of doing stop motion animation where you cannot do as much as you would like to do in the way of retakes and careful matching. The time factor is quite considerable. The ideal situation in the future is the Chroma Key method as used in television. When this method has the same resolution as film, you will be able to make instantaneous travelling mattes. I believe that some companies are working on this at the moment.

In recent years there has been a great exposé of the ‘behind the scenes’ details of making complicated special effects. It is my belief that it rather spoils the illusion when the audience is told how it is achieved. It is like a stage magician who tells everyone how he achieves his illusions of magic – soon the audience loses interest in the show!

 

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Art of Illusion … by Wendy Laybourn

THE BOOK!

I’ve been really busy for the past couple of years helping my Art Director friend, Terry Ackland-Snow, to write a book about working in the film Art Department. We decided to call it The Art of Illusion: Production Design for Film & Television because that’s what making a film or a television programme is all about – sorry to dis-illusion you but what you and the rest of the audience sees on the screen isn’t altogether real!

Like all good things, this project was started over a glass of wine. Maybe I should think twice next time – but I’ve really enjoyed working with Terry and helping him to pull this whole thing together.

Essentially, the book is aimed at anyone wanting to make a career in film production and it will take you through the processes involved in creating a film set step by step. Film sets have been constantly developing from the simple canvas backcloths used on theatre stages, right through to the present day where computer generated effects augment the highly sophisticated art of designing, building and dressing sets.

All of the tips, tricks and techniques described in the book have been used and refined over many decades and, although the technology might have changed, the essence of film making is still the same as it was in those early days.

The Production Designer and Art Director are artists who can adapt their style to any number of different types of production. They integrate themselves and their team into the mood and feeling of any project, comedy, musical, costume drama or science fiction. The range of materials used and the scope of the design evolve as the development of technology and visual processes year by year.

In film and television production the learning process never ends and so even the most experienced film maker will find each new project a challenge!

The book is due to be published by The Crowood Press in September, provisionally priced at £18.99 and with ISBN number 978 1 78500 343 1. It will be available to buy from all good bookshops and from the Crowood website, www.crowood.com.

 

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Army Film & Photographic Unit (1942-46) and its Association with Pinewood Studios … by Wendy Laybourn

Poppy Every 11th November Pinewood Studios hosts a Remembrance Service, not only in memory of the fallen in every conflict – but specifically to honour of the members of the Army Film & Photographic Unit (AFPU) which also embraces the RAF Film Production Unit (RAFFPU). This year the service was conducted by the Reverend Nick Todd CF, Chaplain to the Irish Guards and the two minutes silence at 11 o’clock was marked by Colour Sergeant Shaun Held, Senior Bugle Major, The Rifles – with the Colours presented by the Royal British Legion, Iver Heath.

Formed during WWII, the AFPU and RAFFPU had their headquarters in Pinewood Studios where a permanent reminder in the form of a Memorial Plaque, which records losses proportionately as high as any Unit in the war, is displayed in the corridor leading to the cutting rooms where so much of the film footage, which is still frequently seen on television, was edited.

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

The AFPU & FAFFPU Roll of Honour

Paul Clark is the person who is currently looking after the AFPU Veterans Association, and organises the attendance of the remaining members and the friends and families of those who are no longer with us – as well as the reunions over the years (which were inspired originally by Captain Alan del Strother, a one-time Adjutant at Pinewood). He took over the reins from Harry Thompson, who in turn had taken over from George Reeves. Because PR and war correspondents were attendees at the reunions they are also listed on the roll of honour – and let us not forget the darkroom technicians, camera mechanics, clerical and transport staff who all  played a vital part in running the Unit and are deserving of equal listing. As Paul mentioned in his introduction at the service, the membership is reducing each year but I think that he can rest assured that this wonderful piece of history will continue to be honoured by Pinewood Studios and the friends and families of the AFPU and RAFFPU members.

History

Before the start of the Second World War the Central Office of Information controlled publicity related to all military and civil actions with the Director of Public Relations in the War Office being responsible for the affairs of the British Armed Forces. When the War broke out in September 1939, just one Army photographer, Geoffrey Keating and one film cameraman, Harry Rignold, accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France.

It was quickly realised that the front line would be a dangerous place for untrained photographers as well as the possibility of them endangering not only themselves but the people in the battles they would have to photograph. On 24th October 1941, the Army agreed to form a corps of trained photographers and cameramen. The unit was called the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) and, under the leadership of Lt. Colonel Hugh St. Claire Stewart, Pinewood Studios was selected as their headquarters – as well as the RAF Film Unit and the Crown Film Unit, who produced propaganda films for the Ministry of Information.

There were many professional film and press photographers who had already been called up for service so they were quickly located and brought together in Pinewood Studios, which served both as a headquarters and training centre for the Units. Number 1 Unit was based in Cairo, which was to come into its own when retreat changed to offensive at Alamein, opening with the launching of the barrage skilfully and uniquely filmed by Sgt Billy Jordan, MM – who continued as a cinematographer, working in news, features and shorts for Associated-British Pathé, Alfred Hitchcock and The Children’s Film Foundation.

D-Day Landings

D-Day Landings

On D-Day, 6th June 1944, ten men from the newly-formed AFPU went with the first wave of troops ashore, whilst others landed with the airborne troops – continuing to accompany the Armed Forces as they fought through Europe.

Two experienced pressmen, Ted Malindine and Len Puttnam were among the photographers called up to record the British Expeditionary force in 1939 & 1940.

They both recorded the Dunkirk evacuation and were themselves evacuated twice from the French beaches.

The AFPU was deployed in all theatres of Allied action, often alongside special forces such as the Commandos, the Chindits, the Airborne, the SAS, the Special Boat Squadron and the Long Range Desert Group. All the major  campaigns were filmed and photographed – and the footage from the Desert and North Africa Campaigns was used to produce ‘Desert Victory’ which won an Oscar for the best war documentary. In later years footage from D-Day provided background information for the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’.

The Italian campaign and Western Europe embraced the action at Monte Casino, Arnhem, the Rhine Crossing and the relief of the Belsen Concentration Camp. The Far East campaign was covered by Number 9 Unit under the umbrella of Admiral Louis Mountbatten and footage was used to produce ‘Burma Victory’.

As an example of the breadth of work of the members of the AFPU, the following passage is part of the memories of photographer Frank Covey:

… ‘Having returned from North Africa and completed my parachute training in January 1944, we were waiting for assignment to units. There I saw a notice which read … “Volunteers needed for a course on Photography” … when we got to Pinewood we were met by a gentleman in civvies, who introduced himself as Major David MacDonald, our new CO. We were told that all regular army bullshit was out and that there would be no time for parades or suchlike – but that we should keep ourselves correctly dressed, behave and put all our efforts into the task ahead.

The commanding staff were all well known people from the film industry. The Boulting brothers with Richard Glendinning and David MacDonald formed the nucleus. There was also the Crown Film Unit at Pinewood making war films such as ‘Target Tonight’, ‘Western Approaches’ and ‘Journey Together’ with Edward G Robinson. A young actor starred in some of these films, who we got to know as Dickie Attenborough! All in all we were a mixed bunch of film, newspaper and magazine photographers from across the country … 

… ‘We broke out of Normandy and followed the German retreat, at times entering villages in forests and finding that we were the first British troops they had seen. We joined the Guards Armoured Division for their dash to Brussels. With the infantry (Welsh Guards) led by armoured cars of the Household Cavalry and Cromwell tanks – we dashed 100 miles and got to the city in the late afternoon of 3rd September 1944. It was crazy, we were covered with flowers, given bottles of Brandy etc …

… ‘We went to the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen and Neugamme near Hamburg, where we saw the terrible carnage. At Neugamme the ovens were still there and all over the camp white discs were scattered on the ground, which we discovered later were the compressed ashes of those burned’ …

After the War

Many of the former members of the AFPU became established in the film and photographic industries after the war and several became exceptional figures in their chosen professions – here are three examples:

John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred joined the film industry in 1937, served with the AFPU working on ‘Desert Victory’, ‘Tunisian Victory’ and ‘Burma Victory’ with Roy Boulting.

After the war he went on to, work at Shepperton Studios as music and dubbing mixer on notable films including ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. From 1972 he was Head of Sound at Rank Film Laboratories until his retirement.

During his illustrious career he had many film credits as sound recordist and mixer, including ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ (Oscar nominated), ‘Anne of a Thousand Days’ (Oscar nominated), ‘The Italian Job’, ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’, ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’, ‘Half a Sixpence’, ‘The Quiller Memorandum’, ‘Doctor Strangelove’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’ and ‘In Which We Serve’. 

Gillie Potter

Gillie Potter

   Gillie Potter joined the AFPU, already having started his career with the National Screen Service as a Title Artist, and was posted to Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command, where he stayed after the war ended to assist in setting up the Malaysian Government Film Unit. After a few years working in Malaysia he returned to the UK just in time for the start-up of ITV.

He was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of specialist ‘in-camera’ effects. He elevated the boring ‘pack-shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack. His work earned him more than 40 international awards including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival – and he was involved in the production of more than 2,000 advertisements. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films including ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Harry Waxman

Harry Waxman

    Harry Waxman started with International Pictures as a camera assistant and worked in a number of studios during the 1930s, including Ealing, Welwyn and Worton Hall.

During the war he served with the RAF Film Unit making his first feature, ‘Journey Together’, directed by John Boulting in 1945. His work on that film led to a contract with Two Cities Films after the war leading to him working at Denham Studios and becoming involved with the Boulting brothers as cameraman on ‘Fame Is the Spur’ and then as cinematographer on ‘Brighton Rock’ both in 1947.

Harry Waxman was a founder-member of the BSC (British Society of Cinematographers) and served as President from 1966-69 – and in 1959 he won an award from the British Society of Cinematographers for ‘Sapphire’. He is credited with more than 60 other films included ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘The Day the Earth Caught Fire’,Crooks in Cloisters’,The Nanny’, ‘The Anniversary’,The Wicker Man’.

The dedicated and outstanding work of the members of the AFPU and the RAFFPU is carried on by the photographers and cameramen of the Royal Logistics Corps, 77th Brigade who are the current British Armed Forces members working wherever the Army, Navy and RAF are deployed. Perhaps one day we’ll see one or two of  their names credited in award-winning dramas or documentaries, like their predecessors!

 

AFPUbadge2

Pinewood copy

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

THE MAGIC OF MATTES AND MINIATURES by Leigh Took

On a location driven film when is it a waterfall and when is it a working model? When is a backdrop real and when is it a matte? This is the magic created by the skill and craft of the model and miniature effects workshop.

Leigh preparing a matte up an 80’ tower on the 1975 film ‘Last Days of Pompeii’ in Pinewood Studios

Leigh preparing a matte up an 80’ tower on the 1975 film ‘Last Days of Pompeii’ in Pinewood Studios

When I reflect on the last thirty years and how I arrived at this point in my career, the key drive has been a philosophy of enthusiasm and positivity – a strong and continuing motivation to work in film and an optimism that the British Film Industry (and in parallel, my own career) will continue to be successful whatever obstructions are thrown in the way.

Ever since I can remember I have had a keen interest in art (as I grew older this interest refined to painting, design and sculpture) and, of course, film. I was very fortunate to secure work experience at Pinewood Studios where I was able to marry my two great loves – art and film. Cliff Culley, who ran a matte painting company there, was impressed with the artwork I had taken to show him and employed me, along with four other teenagers. At that time, matte painting on glass was a very specialized thing with only a handful of people in the UK doing it, all of whom had ‘come up through the ranks’.

I decided to make myself indispensable to Cliff, managing to help out in every way I could, from making the tea to making sure there was always a clean palette and brushes for Cliff every day that he came in to paint. I became an apprentice and, as with any apprenticeship, the wages weren’t great – but without that initial opportunity I doubt I would be where I am today. Amongst the first films I worked on as a trainee were ‘Warlords of Atlantis’ in 1978 and the Ray Harryhausen film, ‘Clash of the Titans’ in 1981, combining matte work with building miniature sets.

clash of the Titans

‘Clash of the Titans’

Slowly, I got to do more drawing-up or delineation of shots, blocking in colours, steadily taking on more responsibility, until I reached the point where I could complete a shot from beginning to end, with Cliff adding a few dots and dashes to my work… after all, he was the boss!  When we weren’t so busy, I’d use any spare time I had to improve my abilities in storyboarding, designing fictitious sets, developing imaginative solutions, and ways of achieving in-camera effects and optical processes in film and multiple exposures – always bearing in mind the real world of business … budget limitations! All this was done before the introduction of ‘digital’ and it was essential to be flexible and imaginative enough to come up with new techniques for achieving the effects that were needed.As my responsibilities increased and I was completing matte paintings myself, I learned not only how necessary it was to put 150% into every job, but also to handle comments from clients – whether good or bad!  That feedback would always result in me wanting to do even better in the future – and I think that’s another thing that helps keep me going today, the desire to impress … basically, showing off!

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

Mutant Chronicles

After then working for several years with the master of special effects, Derek Meddings, on films such as ‘Batman’, I started my own company, Mattes & Miniatures, and embraced digital technology. We are fully functional with a matte studio and model and special effects workshops which allow us to combine traditional film techniques with digital post production.

After 30 years, the drive hasn’t diminished and I still feel just as excited when I’m involved in big films as I did as a teenager. After meeting Terry Gilliam on ‘The Imaginarium of  Doctor Parnassus’, I went completely mad for a few days, locking myself in the studio at Bray experimenting! Over the years I’ve built up a collection of equipment there – cameras, motion control, lights – everything needed to get creative! Ultimately we went on to build miniatures from his designs and had a fantastic time shooting them.

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

Angels & Demons model as seen on screen

 

Angels & Demons model on set

Angels & Demons model on set

 

 

 

 

When bidding on a film, we are usually sent pre-visuals and storyboards, sections of script and a list of requirements. The fun starts with working out the best method of constructing a miniature – what it has to do, what scale to build it to – together with a breakdown of labour costs and materials. After the production has weighed up the methodology and costs, we wait for the go-ahead and, on receipt of a purchase order, invoice and, most importantly, money in the bank, it’s ‘all systems go’! Materials are ordered and technicians employed. Art Department drawings are provided in some cases and we are in constant contact with the director throughout the production. Terry Gilliam, as you might imagine, had a very clear vision in mind and so it was key to have his constant feedback as we were building the miniatures, as sometimes things that look OK on the drawing-board need to be modified once made as a 3D model (and of course everyone has to be clear of the budget ramifications of any changes to original specs).

Other times, particularly on lower-budget productions, rather than starting everything at the same time we design and make on the go, showing designs to directors and perhaps discussing ways to make models by ‘recycling’ things already around the Aladdin’s Cave that is the Mattes & Miniatures workshop in Bray. This was our approach on ‘Mutant Chronicles’.

Leigh Took and the finished model

Leigh Took and the finished model

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

Working on the model for Mutant Chronicles

Why bother to make miniatures at all? Why not just create the whole thing in CGI? Well – miniatures offer the opportunity to have a three-dimensional artifact which can be viewed by the camera lens as ‘real’ – and the model can be taken outside – there is no comparison to using actual daylight with a backdrop of trees and landscape in perspective with moving cloud patterns.

I hope these  highlights from my journey, together with a potted description of how I approach jobs, will be helpful to those similarly driven – those with a ‘lust for film’. At the end of my career, which I don’t envisage coming for a good 20 years or so yet (!), nothing would please me more than to have the feeling that, through my own work, I have encouraged and helped others to pursue the career of their dreams and be successful in doing so.

Leigh Took’s film credits include: Bohpal – 2013, The Wolfman – 2010, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – 2009, Angels & Demons – 2009, Inkheart – 2008, Mutant Chronicles – 2008, Stardust – 2007, Highlander, The Source – 2007, The DaVinci Code – 2006, The Descent – 2005, Ella Enchanted – 2004, Guest House Paradiso – 1999, Lost in Space – 1998, The Neverending Story II – 1990, The Rainbow Thief – 1990, Batman – 1989, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen – 1988, Hawk the Slayer – 1980. Television credits include: The First Men in the Moon – 2010, Band of Brothers – 2001, The 10th Kingdom – 2000.

SOME USEFUL VISUAL PROCESSES:

FORCED PERSPECTIVE is a technique developed not only for miniatures but in the construction of full-size film sets – for example, in a street scene, the buildings will start to condense towards the end of the road and perhaps a ramp will be used to create a false horizon (readers take note of the comments on the Supergirl set in Terry Ackland-Snow’s article) It is a natural follow-on that this technique is used in building miniatures which means that a quite large landscape can be fitted into a condensed layered form so that, from the camera’s point of view, it looks like the real thing. The camera position might need to be locked off in a particular position but it gives an opportunity to create depth of field in a miniature.

LATENT IMAGING is an invisible image produced by the physical or chemical effects of light on the individual crystals (usually silver halide) of photographic emulsions; the development process makes the image visible, in the negative. Shoot a plate (a locked off shot of a landscape, say) then mask off the top half of the matte box on the front of the camera so you only expose half of the film. Take a small piece of that film to be processed then project that piece of film through the camera onto a piece of glass, then draw off the shot and extend it up and incorporate it with whatever is needed in the shot – eg castle or distant landscape or sky. Work on the matte painting and scrape away the bottom where the negative was projecting the plate footage, combining a painting with an unprocessed negative to create a final shot.

FRONT PROJECTION – tiny reflective glass beads, which are an integral part of cinema projection screens, are used in front projection material. The actor (or subject) performs in front of the reflective screen with a movie camera pointing straight at him. In front of the camera is a beam-splitter – a one-way mirror angled at 45 degrees. At 90 degrees to the camera is a projector which casts a faint image of the background on to the one-way mirror which reflects the image onto the performer and the screen; the image is too faint to appear on the actor but shows up clearly on the screen. In this way, the actor becomes his own matte. The combined image is transmitted through the one-way mirror and recorded by the camera.

To see more of Leigh Took’s work, check out Mattes & Miniatures Visual Effects Ltd www.mattesandminiatures.co.uk

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Stuntman’s World by Jim Dowdall

Fom the perspective of one who has been ‘at it’ for rather a long time and should know better by now!

Jim Dowdall

Jim Dowdall

When I came into the industry in the 1960’s as an armourer with Bapty’s, my first film was ‘The Dirty Dozen’ – and what a picture that was to cut your teeth on!

Surrounded by the legendary luminaries of both the acting and technical departments, I began to realise that, despite my mother’s exhortations that I would be destitute for life without the obligatory 5 ‘O’ levels and 2 ‘A’ levels, it might be possible to make a living in an industry that neither required nor asked for bits of paper – and that my single English ‘O’ level was not required on the voyage!

A prior spell working with big cats as a beastman for Bertram Mills Circus, with a bit of trapeze thrown in and a number of other odd jobs, had infected me with the ‘adventure bug’ and, having left the armoury business some time after finishing on ‘Where Eagles Dare’, I joined the Parachute Regiment, got the Champion Recruit’s Cup and thought that the army was going to be my career – but a parachuting accident left me unfit and I was invalided out 18 months later.

It was now the early 1970’s and the film business was booming, so I enrolled with the ‘Ugly’ agency and a couple of others to get some walk-on work and thus acquire the very desirable (and hard to come by in those days) Equity card.

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ - 1989

Being catapulted through an explosion for the boat chase on ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ – 1989

 

The Stunt Register was just being formed as a professional stunt body within the remit of Equity and I squeezed in with a few of the stunt contracts I had acquired working for an agency called ‘Havoc…Specialists in Hazards’.Since then, life seems to have been a fantastic whirl of various films, TV shows, commercials and occasionally, live shows (which are always unnerving for their very real inability to ‘go again’)

The normal course of events runs like most productions with a script being offered, various meetings to ‘get the job’ and then the business of breaking down the ‘gag’ to work out the best way of translating the director’s wishes into the camera – and always within the limitations of the producers depth of pocket. Of course, just occasionally, one gets the chance to work on various productions (like the earlier Bonds) where you just said what bits of kit and personnel were required and it was so.

 

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

This was in Iceland doubling Pierce Brosnan in the Aston Martin on the ice chase for ‘Die Another Day’ in 2002. Remarkable likeness (I don’t think!!)

The early days of Bond were a real eye opener for me as everything (as on all productions in those days) was shot in-camera and we would sometimes have weeks of rehearsals either on location or in the Band Room at Pinewood Studios – which would be fully kitted out with mats, trampolines and all the other bits of equipment which might be required, usually for the ‘end sequence’ in the villains lair, which then had to be blown up over a number of days. When we did the submarine sequence for ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (for which the famous Pinewood 007 stage was constructed) filming began shortly after Christmas in a very cold January on a vast stage with a requirement for a number of us to do ‘falls’ into the water. Although we would be paid a stunt ‘adjustment’ for these falls, there was a certain ‘hanging back’ as we knew that it would be unlikely that we would have time to change into a dry costume before take two – and few of us owned such a sophisticated piece of kit as a wet suit!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

As the astronaut on ‘Superman 2’ in 1980 being thrown by Terence Stamp. This is the wire job where I have to be revived with oxygen!

Wire work on pictures like ‘Superman’ 1 & 2 was pushing the envelope at the time and Geoffrey Unsworth’s capacity to ‘light out’ the wires was masterful – in those days it was without the benefit of ‘Paintbox’ or such sophisticated bits of kit which would come on stream in the 80s. I remember being on wires wearing a space suit with the helmet sealed on which gave me a limited amount of oxygen before I began to get a bit woozy. I would then see Geoffrey up and down a tall ladder spraying the wires with a black paint aerosol just before we shot. I had to be revived twice with a whiff of oxygen after a couple of …‘sorry, just need a second on the wire spraying’… occasions.

For ‘Flash Gordon’ doubling for Timothy Dalton, we spent weeks rehearsing the fight on the disc floating in space with knives coming up out of the floor. We also all had to learn how to use a bullwhip from one of the stunt boys, Reg Harding, who had been a ‘jackaroo’ in Australia and was a master with that very dangerous (mostly to the user) bit of kit

Hours spent in the chair having prosthetics put on to double the monster on wires

With Michael Caine  on 'The Eagle has Landed' in 1976
With Michael Caine on ‘The Eagle has Landed’ in 1976

 

for Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’ meant a 6am start and sometimes a 10pm finish 6 days a week with all the penalty payments and overtime one could imagine – luckily all before Christmas – and the car park at Shepperton Studios, stuffed with a variety of our newly acquired BMWs and Range Rovers after the holidays, became known as the ‘thank you Michael Mann’ car park!

As the 1980s progressed and the sophistication in filmmaking began galloping forward, commercials became a great laboratory for new devices and gimmicks as the repetition on TV, combined with bulky production budgets, meant that the directors wanted to use every new device that was either coming on stream or was just nudging its way through a crack in the door.

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

In the water with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones on the set of ‘Entrapment’ in 1979

For me, this was an opportunity to be introduced to the cutting edge of every new gizmo whether it was the ‘Hothead’ or ‘Paintbox’ – and I was fortunate enough to be involved in some of the early experimental work on Libra with Nick Phillips and Harvey Harrison by driving various vehicles either on racetracks or bolted to the side of Land Rovers going over really rough territory.

‘Star Wars’, ‘Superman’, ‘Batman’, ‘Bond’, ‘Indy’, ‘Private Ryan’, ‘English Patient’, ‘Enemy at the Gates’, ‘Corelli’, ‘The Pianist’ etc etc, all have their interesting facets and learning curves which require a certain thought process and how we can make it look good safely (within reason….) and the challenge continues!

The main differences between then and now is that we all have mobiles and email and GPS and CGI … but when it comes down to it, the business still requires a good script, good direction, good actors and good action where required. We are just a part of the jigsaw puzzle, the big difference is that the successful ones can put the linament on the bruises with a £50 note!

Stunt people have, by definition, to be jacks of all trades and sometimes master of one or two – tomorrow might be a stair fall on fire, Tuesday falling off a horse, Wednesday turning a car over, Thursday a high fall and Friday a fight sequence.

I did have a week like that a couple of times. Exciting it is, boring it ain’t!

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins ‘inspecting the meat’

On the set of ‘The Long Good Friday’ in 1980 with Bob Hoskins
‘inspecting the meat’

Jim Dowdall’s film credits include: Skyfall – 2012, Safe House – 2012, Blitz 2011, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows – 2010, The Descent 1&2 – 2009 & 2005, RocknRolla – 2008, Death Defying Acts – 2007, The Flood – 2007, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – 2005,  Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – 2005, Sahara – 2005, Finding Neverland – 2004, The Bourne Supremacy – 2004, Die Another Day – 2002, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – 2001, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Entrapment – 1999, Little Voice – 1998, Saving Private Ryan – 1998, Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997, The English Patient – 1996, Batman – 1989, Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade – 1989, Whoops Apocalypse – 1986, Brazil – 1985, Octopussy – 1983, For Your Eyes Only – 1981, Star Wars V – 1980, Force 10 from Navarone – 1978, The Spy Who Loved Me – 1977, A Bridge Too Far – 1977, Star Wars IV – 1977, The Eagle Has Landed – 1976, Where Eagles Dare – 1968, The Dirty Dozen – 1967.

Television credits include: Eastenders 2012, Call the Midwife – 2012, Richard hammond’s Invisible Worlds – 2010, Rock & Chips – 2010, The Bill – 2004 to 2009, Top Gear – 2008, Dalziel & Pascoe – 2006 to 2007, The Gathering Storm – 2002, Prime Suspect – 1995, Minder – 1991, The Professionals – 1982, Doctor Who – 1975.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Special Effects Secrets of Gillie Potter

Gillie Potter 1923 - 2004

Gillie Potter was one of the world’s leading special effects animators and became known as the man who could ‘do the impossible’. His revolutionary work in British commercials advanced the use of special effects in television advertising. He elevated the boring ‘pack shot’ to an art form and invented the device of having live action sequences taking place on a moving product pack.

His commercial work started in the mid 1950s. This work earned him more than 40 international awards, including a Golden Lion at the Cannes Advertising Film Festival and was involved in the production of more than 2,000 ads, including classic commercials for Rolo, Vicks Vapour Rub, Quaker Oats, Nesquick and Shredded Wheat. His special effects work can also be seen in feature films ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Superman: The Movie’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

Gillie Potter was a living legend, still working because he loved it, right up until his death in 2004 at the age of 80. He was the magician of advertisements during the early years of commercial television. In those days, trick film work was a novelty and, at the morning coffee breaks across the land, last night’s TV ads would be a hot topic of discussion …. ‘just how did they do that?‘. Indeed, when we look at some of his early show-reels today it is difficult to see exactly how he did it – in fact, they often look digital when digital technology was at least 20 years in the future.

The predominant brief at that time for commercials was that they should contain something which was very different from anything that had ever been seen before. Once this challenge had been faced and some sort of presentation devised, the vital next step was to select the most appropriate method to achieve it. This usually turned out to be the simplest way of doing it and that, in turn, often proved to be the cheapest – or at least the most cost-effective.  The budgets for special effects commercials in those early days were actually quite small compared with those of live action shoots.  

Usually, the main sections of special effects shoots were made ‘in camera’ – sometimes using multiple exposure but more often shooting a free-standing optical illusion that Gillie’s small team had created. The final work might be embellished by optical composites but in-camera methods kept overall control in the hands of the production company. This was often the cheapest and usually the quickest method. They had the further, very positive, advantage of keeping down the number of generations, as film stock was more primitive in those days and generation-free digital copying was not yet even a dream.

Gillie had invented a particular device – the groundbreaking technique of putting a moving picture onto a moving pack. He always tried to obey one very important rule – keeping the product identity – which most often means the product pack itself right there in the shot. How many commercials we see today leave no lasting impression of what they were about!  Gillie’s ingenious idea was to build on this important principle by showing a movie of the product being used on the surfaces of a moving (usually rotating) pack of that very product. This seems easy now, particularly with all the digital systems available but at that time, it was something that had never been seen before in a television commercial. Camera people guessed that he must have used a rotating projector but they were puzzled as to why it didn’t appear in the shot at some point. The crucial item here was a small mirror, which enabled the rotating projector to be positioned below the field of view of the camera.

A cigarette advert which had cigarettes, packets and disembodied titles built up into an increasingly impossible pyramid before the whole structure collapsed, with the cigarettes all landing neatly in their packets. Few viewers ever guessed that the sequence was shot by laying the packet and the cigarettes on a glass table and shooting upwards, from below. The text pieces were to be stop-motion animated onto the film afterwards, so it was vital that the artist’s hand should maintain the correct separation throughout the main shoot. Particularly delightful is a move in which the text of the word ‘tipped’ goes off balance and the letters are meticulously animated to take up a sloping format and then corrected, when the hand goes in to make the line level again.  

This might well have been the very first use of video assist in a commercial shoot, as the cameraman and the director were able to co-ordinate the whole procedure with an improvised form of closed circuit television from a video camera strapped alongside the 35mm film camera.        

This article is published with the kind permission of the Potter family. There is a DVD of this interview, which outlines Gillie’s techniques in detail, particularly useful to course leaders and students who would like to experiment with their own in-camera effects. For more information on purchasing the DVD Network Nine News info@network-nine.com

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 2, 2012 in Special Effects

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: